live close?

Back on April 13th, mail (lightly edited below) from someone who had just found Language Log and my “Open and closed” posting of 3/28/08:

I just discovered this site tonight & I swear I see an error.

No offense. I am no linguist, but you said “Since there’s no adjective close /kloz/ in English, the stative adjective closed gets to fill its slot in the pattern”.

I’d like to differ in opinion. Close, as in proximity of objects to others or near, drives me nuts.

There are signs in Minneapolis that read “live close” in advertisement of college-time housing.

When I first drove by the signs I only noticed the word live having double meaning. I hadn’t thought of close initially but there were multiple signs along that road so I always saw the phrase more than once at a time.

Two points here: one about spellings and pronunciations, and one about judgments of usage.

(I’ll refer to my correspondent as B, since I don’t have his permission to name him.)

Spellings and pronunciations. Whether English has an adjective close /kloz/ is a matter of fact, not opinion. And the answer is: no, it doesn’t. As I said in my 2008 posting:

It turns out that almost everything about open and closed is a matter of regularities; the special facts are the presence of an adjective open in the language and the absence of an adjective close (pronounced /kloz/; there is an adjective close /klos/, the opposite of far, as in “Don’t Stand So Close to Me”, but it’s not relevant here).

Well, B said he wasn’t a linguist, so he didn’t attend to my phonemic transcriptions, distinguishing /kloz/ (with a voiced final) from /klos/ (with a voiceless final). Instead, B was bewitched by spelling and treated everything spelled CLOSE as an instance of “the same word”. (Still, every half-reputable dictionary of English treats them as two different words.)

Usage attitudes. Then we come to the disparaging of the adjective close /klos/. At first glance, this is preposterous. Here’s a slightly pared-down version of the relevant entry in NOAD2:


1 a short distance away or apart in space or time: the hotel is close to the sea | her birthday and her wedding date were close together | the months of living in close proximity to her were taking their toll.

• with very little or no space in between; dense: cloth with a closer weave | this work occupies over 1,300 pages of close print.

• narrowly enclosed: animals in close confinement.

• [ predic. ] (close to) very near to (being or doing something): on a good day the climate in LA is close to perfection | she was close to tears.

• (with reference to a competitive situation) won or likely to be won by only a small amount or distance: the race will be a close contest | she finished a close second.

2 [ attrib. ] denoting a family member who is part of a person’s immediate family, typically a parent or sibling: the family history of cancer in close relatives.

• (of a person or relationship) on very affectionate or intimate terms: they had always been very close, with no secrets at all.

• (of a connection or resemblance) strong: the college has close links with many other institutions.

3 (of observation, examination, etc.) done in a careful and thorough way: we need to keep a close eye on this project | pay close attention to what your body is telling you about yourself.

• carefully guarded: his whereabouts are a close secret.

• not willing to give away money or information; secretive: you’re very close about your work, aren’t you?

4 uncomfortably humid or airless: a close, hazy day | it was very close in the dressing room.


in a position so as to be very near to someone or something; with very little space between: they stood close to the door | he was holding her close.


close by very near; nearby: her father lives quite close by.

close to (or close on )(of an amount) almost; very nearly: he spent close to 30 years in jail.

close to the bone see bone.

close to one’s heart see heart.

close to home see home.

close up very near: close up she was no less pretty.

close to the wind Sailing (of a sailing vessel) pointed as near as possible to the direction from which the wind is blowing while still making headway.

come close almost achieve or do: he came close to calling the President a liar.

too close for comfort dangerously or uncomfortably near: the friendly stranger who suddenly comes too close for comfort.

Not one of the uses here has a label indicating that it’s in any way non-standard. These are perfectly ordinary, bread-and-butter uses of the adjective or adverb close /klos/, and it’s hard to see why anyone would object to the word.

(Note that the distinction between adjectival and adverbial uses of close is none too clear, especially  with respect to expressions like live close to [a place], in which close to functions much like near.)

But B’s e-mail gives us a hint as to the source of his objection to the adjective close: his dislike for the use on those Minneapolis billboards exhorting people to live close ‘live close to here, live close by’. His e-mail suggests that his objection to the billboards comes from a difficulty in parsing the phrase, because of the ambiguity of live (adjective live /lajv/ vs. verb live /lıv/) in combination with the ambiguity of close (adjective/adverb vs. verb). But in fact only one of the four combinations of category assignment is meaningful, and most people cope gracefully with potential ambiguities in such cases.

In mail to B, I speculated on two other possible contributions to his discomfort with live close: (a) the adverbial use of close (rather than closely) and (b) the elliptical use of close (without its complement in to).

As to (a), there are other adverbials that lack -ly, sometimes obligatorily (Talk fast!), and in fact live closely to [a place] is only marginally grammatical (there are significant numbers of ghits, but they look like hypercorrections of live close to [a place]).

As to (b), even I am a bit uncomfortable with elliptical close in Do you live close? and the like. So possibly the combination of (a) and (b) was too much for B. (I did ask him about these possibilities in e-mail, but he never replied.)

In any case, what seems to have happened is that B has extended his dislike for the billboards’ Live close to all occurrences of the adjective close. One use of close has contaminated all the others, even the most unobjectionable ones (on contamination, see here and here), and B has invented a new usage proscription.

The source of proscriptions. Contamination is one source of proscriptions, but it’s often hard to discern where these “rules” come. From last year, this find:

a “rule” saying that the (intransitive) verb rise can occur only with animate subjects, so that Speed limits rise is incorrect (also Prices rise and The standard of living has risen). (link)

And before that, a proscription against very modifying Adjs derived from PSP forms of verbs (very surprised, etc.), here. And Ambrose Bierce’s proscription against “because for for” (discussed here); many of Bierce’s proscriptions are mystifying.

There are many different sorts of sources: appeals to “grammatical logic”, appeals to the syntax of Latin, appeals to etymology, and so on. One very common source is someone’s perception that a usage is associated with some context or group of users that the complainant deprecates. A recent case of this came up in a Language Log posting by Geoff Pullum recently: “Ongoing lexical fascism” (here).

Geoff’s sin: he “tried to refer to some ongoing research other day” [on the Lingua Franca blog of the Chronicle of Higher Education], and the editor pounced on ongoing; the adjective ongoing was not to be permitted in the Chronicle. Geoff raged and fumed, but ongoing would not do. Geoff’s account of the process:

The personal peeves of an editor become house style, and house style dictates years of newspaper copy, and back files of newspaper copy get incorporated into linguistic corpora, and linguists investigate language through those corpora, so eventually editors’ peeves actually become scientific fact about the way the language is used.

It starts with the personal peeves of an editor. That’s where the context of the usage and the nature of the people who use it come into play, when editors associate the usage — whether accurately or not — with contexts and users that they disdain; actual practice might then change over the years, but once the peeve is out there, it gets incorporated into style books and perpetuates itself.

In the case of ongoing, the original objection seems to have been to its associations with “cablese, the journalistic indulgence in words like downplay and upcoming” (John McIntyre, here) and to its overuse by some writers. McIntyre concludes:

But as one of many synonyms for continuing, it has become relatively innocuous since its arrival about 130 years ago. After a slow start, it came into prominent use in the 1950s, which is probably when resistance to it as a vogue usage it set in. In Britain, where the resistance has been firmer, it has been scorned as an Americanism.

… Ongoing has endured for more than half a century. Overusing it is silly, as is using it where it is not needed or where some other word is more precise. But shunning it has also come to look a little silly. And dated.

Still, objections continue. From Jonathon Green’s Jargon Dictionary (1987, p. 384):

on-going  a  [Communications]  happening now, continuing, in action; it is a redundant and over-used phrase, often found as in ‘on-going situation’ and fortunately, as with many other such phrases, it is gradually vanishing beneath the weight of its own absurdity.

Strong stuff. Of course, ongoing isn’t redundant in itself, but (like almost any word) it can be used redundantly. And it has its uses, as an alternative to in progress, under way, going on, continuing, current, etc. Far from vanishing, it’s settled into life as an ordinary word, appearing with some frequency even in publications that inveigh against it explicitly (like the Guardian and the Chronicle of Higher Education).


4 Responses to “live close?”

  1. KathrynB Says:

    I feel affection for “close by”. As long as we’re playing favorites. Maybe this will be my new tactic with peeves: express that whatever the peeve is is a favorite x of mine. “I am extraordinarily fond of verbing nouns!”

  2. strangeguitars Says:

    There is a sense of “close” (adj) that may actually be pronounced /klouz/, but I’m not entirely sure. Of course it is not in any dictionary, and when it is in a glossary, no pronunciation is given (that I’ve ever seen). That is the phonological term “close” applied to vowels, and which is the opposite of “open”. I’ve wondered about this for years. It’s not illogical to imagine that the word here is pronounced /klous/, because the tongue position is closer to the roof of the mouth than the open vowels are. But on the other hand, /klous/ is not the opposite of “open”, so does one pronounce this sense of “close” as /klouz/?

  3. strangeguitars Says:

    Thanks for clearing that up. Ack, I shouldn’t have said *any* dictionary!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: